Anette Pollner is the current leader of the Bangkok Women’s Writer Group (BWWG) and the coordinator of the Bangkok Blondes, published in 2007 by Bangkok Book House. She also authored, under the pen name of Ann Cox, The Company of Frogs, a mystery novel that was shortlisted for a UK literary prize in 2007. In this 3-part interview, Anette talks about writing, her books, the publishing industry, the Bangkok Opera and the interpretation of dreams.
“Bangkok Blondes has done extraordinarily well.”
Mihnea Voicu Simandan: In 2007, The Nation newspaper listed Bangkok Blondes as one of the best books about Asia and one of the four best books about Thailand. How has the book done ever since?
Anette Pollner: Bangkok Blondes has done extraordinarily well. It is still available in the bookshops in Thailand and South East Asia, and also at the airports in the region. Souvanibhoumi airport says that Bangkok Blondes is one of their most popular titles. So far, it hasn’t appeared in the ten baht bins either…
MVS: To be honest, I was expecting BWWG to publish another collection of their works in 2008. We joked ones, at a Bangkok Bookcrossers meeting, that the next book in the series should be Bangkok Brunets…
AP: The Bangkok Women’s Writers Group is a very active group of women writers who are all working on their projects. Over time, the group changes with the writers who attend it, and right now most people are working on novels, film scripts and poetry collections. This will be reflected in future publications, both by the group as a whole and by the individual authors.
I would also like to add that we are open to new members and have been joined by new writers many times. All you need to be is a woman and all you need to do is to write, and take your writing seriously, at whatever stage you are from beginner to published author to bestseller writer (not a member so far but who knows…). The group has members from 5 continents, ranging in age from early 20s to early 60s, with many different professions, life styles and social backgrounds.
MVS: What is the BWWG planning to do next?
AP: In November 2008, we held a reading at the British Council in Siam Square. We are preparing another reading soon. Everyone is invited to attend, women, men and any other genders. Please look out for it in the press!
“Writing is such a lonely life, and such a specialized life style.”
MVS: You also attend the Bangkok Writers’ Guild meetings. What do you think is the biggest difference between male and female farang writers in Thailand.
AP: When I first came to Bangkok in 2003 I was very keen to join a writers group, and absolutely delighted when I found a women’s writers group, the BWWG. I am a bit of a veteran of writing groups all over the world, in London (where I belonged to several), San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Melbourne, and in writing retreats of many different kinds in the countryside of many countries.
Some of the mixed groups I was in were excellent, but for me, the women’s groups worked best, most of the time. This is not because I hate men (on the contrary, I find them delightful, particularly in certain circumstances!), or because I’m not interested in their opinions, and certainly not because I think that men aren’t worth reading (I would have to exclude most of literary history). It is because I find the interaction in women’s groups generally much more focused on the art and craft of writing, and on trying to understand each individual writer’s style and intentions. When ‘ego-speeches’ are reduced (I don’t think they can ever be completely removed in humans) a lot of time and attention gets freed up for talking about the stories. At the BWWG we have developed a culture of being excited about difference. Every writer has such a unique approach to writing and to life, and I feel enriched just by that after every session. Many of our writers are also pretty good and some have been refining their craft for a long time.
This is all not really an answer to your question and that’s because I honestly think I can’t answer it. I think ‘male’ and ‘female’ are such vast categories, each covering half of humanity, that trying to attribute characteristics to them is largely imaginary. The writers at the writers guild, who seem to be almost exclusively male, are very diverse, too, and focus on different genres like travel writing, poetry, magic realism, novels, short stories and so on. A few probably write what you define as ‘dick lit’ further down although that is not a term that I would use.
Every writing group I have ever been in has enriched my writing and my understanding of the world. Writing is such a lonely life, and such a specialized life style. I truly appreciate the company of other writers, and the opportunity to talk with them about our love and art.
“Men, statistically, are a negligible audience for writers
except in certain non-fiction genres.”
MVS: Most of the fiction written by male foreigners living in Thailand can be easily classified as “dick lit.” From what I’ve read in Bangkok Blondes, with no offence intended, don’t you have the feeling that most female writers stationed in Thailand tend to write “chick lit,” with an emphasis on shopping sprees and spas? What happened to literary fiction?
AP: Ok, this is a very complex question. Let me answer it on a few different levels.
First, my own writing.
I don’t write chick lit, in fact I write ‘literary fiction’. So there you are, what happened to it? I write it. I don’t think that my gender has anything to do with that, but of course it has everything to do with the way I experience the world around me and the thoughts and feelings I have about myself and the world.
As for Bangkok Blondes, there are quite a few stories in there that might be called ‘chick lit’ and I don’t think the authors would feel offended at that. Chick lit is still a best selling genre internationally and since women make up about 70% of readers it is likely to remain so in one form or another. Men, statistically, are a negligible audience for writers except in certain non-fiction genres.
When we brought out Bangkok Blondes, we were aware of the fact that most English language books about Bangkok are written by men and revolve around bars/bar girls/violence/crime and, perhaps not surprisingly given the above, prison.
When I talk to friends abroad, that is the image they have of Bangkok and Thailand. It sometimes makes me sad and angry, and it’s a false and misleading image of this country. This false image is also perpetuated by the (few) tv features about Thailand I have seen in Europe and the US that seem to revolve around the same, sensationalized, subject.
So Bangkok Blondes is in many ways a more realistic portrait of the city, both in showing different settings, environments, different characters, particularly a wider range of female characters but also showing men from a different perspective, as well as in the attention to the ‘small things in life’ that make up so much of it. Everyday experiences that, at least for women, include shopping and personal grooming (although I often see men in shops and at hairdresser’s too, at least in reality).
Right from the start, many women readers welcomed Bangkok Blondes, saying ‘finally we are represented, too’. In the men’s books, women exist only in the form of a very narrow range of stock characters. The majority of women and their lives, the women who are our readers, seem to be invisible to the authors. Of course we also ran into the stereotypical prejudices voiced by some men including the bizarre idea that western women in Thailand have no love life. I suppose this is connected to the fantasy Thailand that some people live in, the Thailand that consists only of bar girls, drugs and prison. Thailand is a complex country, rich and diverse, and with rich and diverse life experience, and our book tries to portray and celebrate that.
The book simply provides a different, female perspective. Well, 14 different perspectives.
Looking back again at Bangkok Blondes, I also want to add that the book contains a number of non-chick lit pieces, including contemporary poetry, interesting and unusual perspectives on inter-cultural relationships and an insight into women’s lives ‘right now’, women who travel and work outside their country of birth, women who live many different life styles and try to find their way through an ever changing world.
Bangkok Blondes is still available in the book shops in Thailand and South East Asia, and particularly popular at the airport bookshop in Bangkok. It is bought by expats and tourists who mostly seem to see it as an ‘alternative introduction’ to Thailand, an introduction that focuses on women.
The question about ‘literary writing’ has been asked a few times in connection with Bangkok Blondes, sometimes voiced as a criticism. This is intriguing to me. The men’s bar girl books don’t get that kind of criticism, and perhaps there is not even an expectation in that direction. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the female perspective on Thailand, at least in book form, is still very much a rarity, and if something is different, maybe people expect more. On the other hand it may also still be true that women are still expected to do everything better in order to be accepted. I try to see it as a compliment, and I am proud that many of the stories in Bangkok Blondes are very well written, ‘chick lit’ or ‘shop lit’ or ‘lit lit’ – whatever their genre.
“Life is short, and I write the books that
are inside me and want to be written.”
MVS: There have been recent discussions about whether one should write for the agent or for him/herself. Where do you stand?
AP: Ah! Now that’s an interesting question because it is really more about the publishing business than about writing as an art form or a craft aimed at entertaining an actual live reader ‘in the wild’.
At present, as I understand it, in order to get published in most countries, you need an agent who will then sell you book to a publisher. (This is however not true for Thailand, where authors still submit their manuscripts directly to publishers. This is what I did to get Bangkok Blondes published.)
The agent as gatekeeper is apparently a relatively new phenomenon. Authors used to approach publishers directly as late as the 1980s – well within living memory.
Agents say that their business is to make money and so they can only take on what they call ‘commercial’ projects, and perhaps the occasional literary project to get a prize and boost the ‘serious’ reputation of their agency.
Therefore, the agent’s outlook is completely different from the writer’s, from mine. When I write I want to tell a story, to portray life as it appears to me, as best I can, even if that means using unconventional methods, to express my personal creativity, the filter through which I experience the universe. I might even get ambitious and create something unique, I might become innovative.
At the moment, agents and publishers are the gatekeepers between us, the writers, and the readers. Publishers have data about how well certain books are selling. They try to second guess the next financial success – and in present day publishing, it’s a short term success, a bit like the ‘quarterly earnings’ outlook that dominates corporations. This is a very difficult game for them – and it is even more difficult for me, the author. How can I guess what my agent and then the publisher will guess will be successful in the next year or two? Some people are very good at guessing the trend, and some have written successful books doing just that.
For myself, I mostly don’t try. Life is short, and I write the books that are inside me and want to be written. This means, of course, that they have a very difficult journey towards getting published. Would the journey be easier if I tried to second guess the market? Maybe. Or maybe I would just end up with an unpublished book that I didn’t even want to write in the first place. From what I hear that is quite a common fate.
Until very recently, readers had to rely almost exclusively on the book shops (and the libraries, who bought from the same sources) to get the books they wanted to read. So the publishers (and agents) were gatekeepers with almost total control. In the old days (we are told), publishers didn’t just publish for profits, they also published the kinds of books they thought readers should read, whether they made them big money or not. While this was a great thing for many of the famous figures from the history of literature who would probably not find a major publisher now, I am not completely convinced that I personally would have done better under the old system. It sounds very paternalistic and elitist to me.
Interestingly, the print publishers, for all their commercial orientation, don’t seem to be doing such a very good job of it. Many publishing houses are in financial trouble and have to cut further and further back on their books and their authors. This has many reasons, but overall they haven’t found a good system to forecast and game the markets so far. For readers and writers, too, the outcome is not so good.
Whether authors on their own will do a better job of connecting with readers remains to be seen. Through internet publishing and relatively affordable self-publishing, authors are trying to cut out the middle man, creating the equivalent of a farmers’ market for books. So far, the financial success doesn’t seem to be overwhelming, but new ways to promote books and authors are still being tried out and developed and the e-publishing market seems threatening enough to the big publishers that some of them are trying to muscle in on it – with what success, again, remains to be seen.
For myself – I can only write what I write.
“A book about heaven, hell and Europe.”
MVS: Tell us a few words about Ann Cox and her mystery novel, The Company of Frogs (which I could not locate at any online bookstore!).
AP: The Company of Frogs was shortlisted for the Longbarn first novel prize but has not been published yet. Long story. I will update you when it finally comes out.
MVS: What are you working on right now?
AP: At the moment I am in a bit of an interesting position. I am finishing a book I have spent the last 6 years on, and I can’t talk about it because I am going to publish it under a different name. I’ve spent thousands of hours working on it, and it’s based on real life, and it’s very very controversial. I’ve suffered through it and loved it and hated it and now I think I just have to do this. It’s a very exciting project, a real ‘hot potato’, but that’s all I can tell you.
But after that, I am going to finish my novel about the strange invention of the piano, the even stranger evolution of the internet and the sweetly diabolic role of Western Harmonics in world history. A book about heaven, hell and Europe. It has thousands of human voices, singing in and out of harmony, a huge chorus competition underneath a medieval cathedral, it has angels and archangels, devils and devilettes, adventure, love, and wild chases through the known universe. Can’t wait!
(To be continued)